When you think of the most important pinch hit in the 2011 season, what do you think of? Probably Dan Johnson's game-tying home run for the Tampa Bay Rays in the bottom of the ninth inning, in the last game of the season, against the New York Yankees. Bases empty. Two outs. Two balls and two strikes. One more strike, one more out, and the Rays would be forced to play a one-game playoff against the Red Sox for the American League Wild Card.
But Johnson's home run -- indeed, the Rays' entire improbable comeback from a 7-0 deficit in Game 162 -- doesn't matter if the Rays aren't sitting on 90 wins heading into the last game of the season. And the Rays aren't sitting on 90 wins on the evening of September 28, 2011 without some pinch-hit heroics earlier in the season.
The same is true for the St. Louis Cardinals. With ten games remaining in the season, the Cardinals trailed the Atlanta Braves by four games in the National League Wild Card race. The Cardinals, of course, closed that gap with some late-inning heroics in their final weekend series against the Cubs, coupled with the Braves' historic collapse down the stretch. But like the Rays, the Cardinals' late-season surge wouldn't have mattered if they hadn't won -- and the Braves hadn't lost -- some critical games earlier in the season. Games decided by pinch hitters.
So what were the five most important pinch hits of 2011?
No. 5: Arizona Diamondbacks v. St. Louis Cardinals, July 9, 2011
Daniel Hudson facing Chris Carpenter at Busch Stadium III. Carpenter gave up three runs in the second inning and was down 5-1 heading to the bottom of the sixth. The Cardinals closed the gap to 5-3, but the Diamondbacks extended the lead again to 6-3. Until the bottom of the eighth inning. Jon Jay led off with a pinch-hit single (and no, that's not the important pinch hit in this game), followed by a Skip Schumaker single (more on Schumaker later). Jay advanced to third on an error and scored on a Ryan Theriot sacrifice fly. 6-4. David Freese struck out looking before Albert Pujols tied the game with a two-run home run to left field.
Fernando Salas set down the Diamondbacks in order in the top of the ninth. Lance Berkman led off the bottom of the inning with a single but was out at second on a muffed bunt by Colby Rasmus. Yadier Molina drew a walk to move Rasmus to second. Tony Cruz then strode to the plate as a pinch hitter for Salas.
Tony who? Tony Cruz. A 25-year-old minor-league catcher, called to the majors for the first time on May 23, 2011 after back-up catcher Gerald Laird fractured a finger on his right hand. On a 1-2 count, Cruz did this:
A double to deep center field. Rasmus scored and the Cardinals won 7-6, breaking a three-game losing streak.
No. 4: Tampa Bay Rays v. Houston Astros, June 26, 2011
A wild one at Minute Maid Park. The Rays jumped to an early lead on B.J. Upton's three-run home run in the top of the first inning off Astros starter J.A. Happ. The Astros tied it, the Rays went back ahead, the Astros battled back and by the end of the fourth inning, the score was 7-5 Astros. The Rays tied it at 7 in the seventh off a two-run home run by Evan Longoria but the Astros again took the lead by one run in the bottom of the seventh.
The Rays loaded the bases in the top of the eighth and with two outs, manager Joe Maddon sent Matt Joyce in to pinch hit for Sean Rodriguez. Joyce hit a booming 2-run double to the right field corner, scoring two, and giving the Rays the lead for good. The final score was 14-10. Here's Joyce's pinch-hit double:
No. 3: Kansas City Royals v. St. Louis Cardinals, June 19, 2011
The Cardinals were looking to sweep their cross-state rivals in this June interleague match-up at Busch Stadium III. Jaime Garcia on the hill for the Cardinals. Twenty-two-year-old rookie Daniel Duffy was on the mound for the Royals. Early hiccups for both pitchers led to a 2-2 score after two. The Cardinals broke the tie in bottom of the fifth with a Pujols solo shot to left, but Royals tied the score at 3-3 in the sixth with a single, bunt, single and single off Garcia.
In the bottom of the sixth, Andrew Brown led off with a single and was bunted over by Daniel Descalso. Skip Schumaker then pinch hit for relief pitcher Mitchell Boggs and shot a single into left field to score Brown and give the Cardinals the lead. Here is Schumaker's pinch-hit RBI single:
The lead didn't last, however. The Royals tied the game on an Alcides Escobar home run off Fernando Salas in the top of the ninth. Schumaker -- who stayed in the game after his pinch hit RBI single -- came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth and did this:
Pinch hit single to take the lead and walk-off home run to win the game. Two at-bats. Two big hits for Skip Schumaker.
No. 2: Washington Nationals v. Atlanta Braves, May 11, 2011
A tough early season loss for the Braves at home against the Nationals. A loss that would, obviously, come back to haunt the Braves at the end of the season. The Braves struck early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first on a Brian McCann two-run double. The Nationals got one back in the second on a Laynce Nix RBI single. The score remained 2-1 until the Braves extended their lead in the seventh on an Eric Hinske solo home run. Eventual Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel blew the save in the ninth. He gave up two singles and a walk to load the bases with one out for pinch hitter Alex Cora. Cora knocked a two-run single off the top of the mound, beyond Kimbrel's behind-the-back reach, and the game was tied. It looked like this:
Like Skip Schumaker in No. 3, Alex Cora stayed in the game and played a key role in the Nationals winning rally in the top of the eleventh. With one out, and Ivan Rodriguez at first on a hit-by-pitch, Cora singled, again, sending Pudge to third. Both scored on Ian Desmond's double in the next at-bat. The Nationals went on to win 7-3.
No. 1: Toronto Blue Jays v. Tampa Bay Rays, August 4, 2011
On the morning of August 4th, the Rays had 57 wins, and sat 11 games behind the Red Sox, who led the American League East by one game over the Yankees. The events of September were still nearly a month away, but for the Rays, every victory inched them a little bit closer.
It was Brett Cecil vs. Wade Davis for this Thursday afternoon game at Tropicana Field. The Blue Jays led off the game with a walk, a double, a walk and a single to take a 1-0 lead. A run-scoring double play made it 2-0. And that's where the scoring stood until the bottom of the fifth, when Evan Longoria blasted a three-run home run to to left-center field. 3-2 Rays. Davis surrendered the lead in the eighth when Jose Bautista tied it with a solo shot to left field.
On to extra innings. The teams traded single runs in the tenth to make it 4-4. The Blue Jays took the lead, again, in the eleventh when Juan Cruz gave up two singles and then a two-run triple to Jose Molina. 6-4 Blue Jays. Again the Rays battled back. They started the bottom of the eleventh with a double, a single, and a run-scoring groundout, to make it 6-5. After a shallow fly ball out, Robinson Chirinos stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter.
Robinson who? Robinson Chirinos. A backup catcher, called up from the minors on July 18. He hit his first major league home run the day before, also against the Blue Jays. And in the bottom of the eleventh, he was the Rays' last hope. He did this.
And on to the twelfth inning they went. With one out in the bottom of the twelfth and the game tied, B.J. Upton hit a triple to put the winning run 90 feet away. The Blue Jays then loaded the bases to bring up Elliot Johnson. He struck out. Next up? Robinson Chirinos. Three on, two out, bottom of the twelfth. Chirinos did this:
Five pinch hits. By five different players. Five pinch hits that changed the course of the 2011 season.